Behind the veil: David Buckley
David Buckley is certainly one of the most long-standing members of the CBKA. He has been Vice-Chairman of the South Cheshire Branch for some time—indeed he would be Chairman if he had not refused the position! He is a keen member of BIBBA and our local queen-rearing expert, on which two subjects he often gives talks and contributes to this magazine. He also tutors on the Keele University beekeeping course with William Kirk, and through this and his generosity and enthusiasm has probably introduced more people to beekeeping in the South Cheshire area than anyone else. One day, he told me the story of how he came to take up beekeeping—and I knew I had to persuade him to tell it to the rest of you!
My beekeeping career began by accident to some extent and due to a strange coincidence. During my early teens I attended a boarding school. One of the expectations of the school was that all boys made a contribution to the school through their own efforts. Everyone was expected to gift two hours of “manual labour” each week in predetermined tasks allocated by the staff. On one occasion I was assigned a task which involved the removal of some ancient wooden garages to make way for state-of-the-art concrete replacements. My work-gang consisted of six people under the supervision of a teacher. As the garages were to be demolished and burnt we began to clear their contents of rotten wood, old carpets and boxes. Imagine the fun –boys and bonfires! At the back of the garage we discovered some WBC and National hives full of old combs. These were also destined to be burned. The frames and combs flared brightly as they hit the flash point on the fire.
It seemed wasteful to me that the hives were to be destroyed, so I asked if they could be saved and I would contact a local beekeeper whose hives were visible in the village to see if he was interested in having them. The teacher was reluctant to agree initially but gave me one week to find a home for the hives. The local beekeeper was reducing his colonies so was not interested. (Beekeeping was going out of vogue at this time—1964). Undeterred I stashed the hives out of harm’s way, determined to find a home for them—and, with the summer break due to start the following week, no-one would be thinking of them.
The coincidence that I alluded to happened during the summer break.
As always I went to visit my grandmother in my holidays. She was a wonderful lady who at seventy still took in a paying guest to help out with her pension and to give her an excuse to make the most wonderful pies and cakes for meals. At one of these meals I was telling her about the previous term and mentioned the bee-hives. Her lodger was very interested in the account. He was very much an old fashioned gentleman. An ex-banker by profession. After the meal he excused himself and, as usual, retired to his rooms. Shortly afterwards he knocked at the dining room door and asked my grandmother if he might be permitted to lend me a book. Clearly she agreed and I was offered sight of Wedmore’s “Manual of Beekeeping”. It turned out that he had been a beekeeper before supers became too heavy and eyesight failed in his septuagenarian years. He retired from beekeeping but kept his library. At the end of my holiday he gifted that book to me and so the seeds were sown and my beekeeping journey began.
Back at school, the hives now had a purpose. They were cleaned and scorched, and my enthusiasm for having bees was well-received by the staff. Chance and coincidence still played a part in forming my future as a beekeeper. Wedmore was my bible throughout the winter and I read and re-read it diligently. The following summer, my dad introduced me to an old allotment holder, Mr Mounsey, who was a beekeeper, but who kept his bees at an out-apiary. It became obvious why!
Mr Mounsey invited me to see his bees. “Now, young fella, tuck your trousers into your socks ‘cos them bees like to go up-hill” he advised. Full of enthusiasm, I watched the process of lighting the smoker and opening the hive. However, within two minutes my ankles were on fire. The bees were stinging me through my thin summer socks! That night my feet were so big I could not even get my slippers on.
A few days later, Mr Mounsey sent a message to tell me that he had a swarm for me if I wanted it. Did I want it? Great excitement as I watched him put the bees onto the traditional slope and he spotted a virgin queen run up. Sadly three weeks later no sign of eggs or queen. Mr Mounsey came back to check the bees and confirmed queenlessness. Sadly, he did not have a spare queen, but knew a man who might have one.
So began the most amazing apprenticeship! Beowulf Cooper was the person he referred to. During the nineteen-sixties Beowulf was a driving force for the conservation and improvement of the British Black Bee, and he was the founder of “BIBBA” as it is known today ( The Bee Improvement and Bee-breeding Association, formerly the British Isles Bee-Breeding Association, formerly the Village Bee Breeders’ Association—Ed.). Sadly we lost him prematurely. However, his legacy lives on in the people who now drive forward the philosophy of BIBBA. I handle bees with the confidence learned over several years from one who I believe is one of the greatest champions of queen-breeding and improving our indigenous honey-bee.
My mentor has left me with the desire to pass on practical beekeeping skills to others as he did to me among many. I believe that confidence in handling bees is learned through good practice and being prepared to learn from other beekeepers. I also subscribe to managing my bees in single National brood-chambers, as my non-prolific bee is longer-lived and does not need a large breeding space. Beowulf never wore gloves. He was determined to breed bees of a good temperament and developed the record card that is still used today for breeding analysis. Forty years ago he promoted home-bred bees and lobbied tirelessly to end the importation of foreign queens. He was concerned for the future of our bees if varroa ever arrived on imported bees. How true his vision was, and we now struggle with this parasite. What else might we suffer from imported bees? My own beekeeping has developed through cooperation and participation with other beekeepers. There is so much to learn from each other. When I worked full-time, there was little time for pursuing exams, but now I am beginning to collect the BBKA modules. I would advise all beekeepers to do at least the Basic Assessment.
My enthusiasm for the hobby is as great now as it was forty-five years ago. My particular enthusiasm is queen-rearing. I use different systems to rear cells and find the diversity fascinating. Rearing queens collaboratively with other local beekeepers brings a different dimension to the hobby and I recommend it.
Disasters! When I was in my second year of beekeeping, I remember a visit by the bee inspector. Just before he arrived, I was called out to a large swarm. I managed to take the swarm in a home-made skep, and used a hessian sack to keep them cool. I rushed to my apiary and I told the inspector about the swarm. He seemed a little envious and wanted to get on with checking my colonies. An hour later, he left with the comment: “The swarm will be over-heating in there”. Sure enough they had suffocated. A mass of wet corpses greeted me on my removing the sacking. As a novice, I had had no idea that they would generate so much heat. How sad that he knew and did not tell me.
This year, a high point is the successful breeding of queens from my five-year-old queen. Even in the last three poor years, she produced eighty pounds of honey each year. She never swarmed and my records show only one sting—and I don’t wear gloves! Sadly the bees superceded her in August while I was away on holiday, but she has left me with an amazing clutch of daughters to evaluate next season.
I have been a member of Cheshire Beekeepers since I moved to Nantwich in 1969, joining as a Life Member for £25. What a good investment that has proved to be! (N.B. The Committee of the CBKA abolished Life Membership some time ago—it was obviously too good a deal! - Ed.) I also joined as a Life Member of BIBBA in 1977 for £15. Currently I am Vice Chairman of the South Cheshire Branch, having been Secretary for five years previously. Three years ago, Bob Parsonage asked me to take over the Keele beginners’ course for him, and I have done this ever since. I find my teaching skills invaluable for this responsibility, and many beginners have joined Cheshire as a result. I met Bob by chance when he advertised his bees for sale as a result of his becoming allergic to stings. I bought his hives but little did I know that he would re-emerge when South Cheshire was formed, and our permanent friendship grew from then.
My hopes for beekeeping are that, with the current mass publicity, a drive to improve beekeeping practice nationally will develop. I feel that the older members have become better at our craft as a result of the plight the bees find themselves in. Varroa has done away with the let-alone beekeeper and has ensured that bees are managed more hygienically.
I would like all beekeepers to be registered, and greater participation in basic qualifications should be the order of the day. The mentoring system for beginners is, I feel, an amazing opportunity for learning, and I have this year been aware of members supporting the new, enthusiastic beekeepers to overcome their problems. With this goodwill and a common desire to keep our bees healthy I think we will overcome the current challenges that the bees face. For my part, I would like there to be a total ban on all imported bees, including queens, as the potential to breed our own queens would be realised if cheap, off-the-shelf inferior ones were not available.
We are the custodians of honey-bees: I think that this is a privilege and a responsibility with which we have been entrusted for the benefit of future generations.